This is the second of a three-part post honoring my stepmother Diane Duncan. To read the first part, click this link Diane and the Desert: Part 1 – Impressions. The final installment is Diane and the Desert: Part 3 – Hawthorne and Ozymandias.
I didn’t mean for it to be two weeks between posts. The thing is, I’m really bad at processing emotional shit and really good at compartmentalizing. And I had shoved all of this into a box in my brain and I just don’t want to open it. But, you know, I kind of have to.
I’m a big fan of public history, and one of the things that I think a lot about is how history gets told. How do we preserve memory? Which stories get told, and which stories don’t? Which items go on display and which ones stay archived? How much of our final narrative contains input from outside groups who might have their own unique perspectives, and how much of it is just raw data? Yes, I know, I think about weird shit.
Those who know me won’t be surprised to learn that I asked myself the same questions while thinking about how to best memorialize Diane in this blog. My grief is my grief. It is different from my dad’s grief, or my sister’s grief, or anybody else’s. How do I tell this story in a way that will encompass what she means to each of us? Which stories should I tell? Which pictures best capture her spirit? I mean, for those of you that knew her, you’ll just get it. Because you know you were blessed to have known her. And you know that your life was richer for having her in it. But what about all the people who read this and didn’t know her? How do I make them see?
I don’t have the answer. Not yet. All I know is that I have to keep telling the story.
When we were driving to Reno the day Diane died, we were rushing to get there as fast as we could. Out first destination was Tonopah, where we planned to gas up and find something for dinner. About a half hour or so south of Tonopah, we came to the little town of Goldfield. The town immediately made me think of Diane. I mean pretty much everything on that trip made me think of her, as well as most everything since then. But this town really made me think of her. For one thing, there was this:
I mean, not only does it have handcrafted jewelry, but it also offers cool shiny stuff. You can’t go wrong with cool shiny stuff. I didn’t stop, but I know Diane would have approved. As we passed the store, I could feel her in the car with us, feel the nudge of her elbow on my side, and hear her say – the way that she had said countless other times in countless other strange little shops – “Dude, come look at this. Isn’t it cool?”
God, I miss her. With an incredible aching painfulness, I just miss her.
We didn’t stop in Goldfield on the way to Reno. We didn’t have time. But we did stop on the way home. It is an incredible place. It’s not quite a ghost town because there are people living there. It’s not really a tourist trap, because there isn’t much to see. When you look at towns like Williamsburg, Virginia, you see that they have one foot planted firmly in the past and one stepping forward into the future. Goldfield is kind of like that, but kind of not. It doesn’t seem to have firm footing in either era. It’s got an incredibly rich past, but it’s still deciding what it wants to become.
I can relate.
The Goldfield of the past was a mining boom-town that popped up in 1903, a year after gold was found in the hills near Tonopah. At its peak, 20,000 people lived in the town, many of whom were gone by 1910 when the cost of mining became prohibitive. Although on a smaller scale, mining continued in the area until the 1940’s, and over the years Goldfield’s mines produced almost 2 billion dollars (in today’s prices) of silver and gold. In its heyday around 1907, the town boasted 49 saloons, 15 barber shops, 54 assayers, 27 restaurants, 21 grocers, and 22 hotels. Any amenities that could be found in larger cities could also be found in Goldfield. By contrast, Las Vegas had only just been founded in 1907 and had a population of well under a thousand. At the time, Las Vegas was advertised on postcards as the “Gateway to Goldfield.” Goldfield also played host to notable residents such as Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), Wyatt Earp, and Virgil Earp, who died there. Fun fact: Virgil Earp died in Goldfield, NV, but is buried in Portland, Oregon. Sam Elliott, who played Virgil Earp in “Tombstone,” lived in Portland as a teenager and graduated from high school there – about ten miles from where Virgil Earp is buried.
The Goldfield of today is a strange mixture of the quaint and the quirky. The past isn’t sectioned off in a neatly fenced historic district. It sits cheek by jowl with the present day. Houses covered in signs sit across the street from antique fire engines. Bustling businesses are just around the corner from ramshackle abandoned buildings. And amidst all of the history, the town still struggles to tell the story of what happened there.
One of the buildings that caught my eye as I was driving through the downtown area was the abandoned high school pictured below. It was opened in 1907 and was in use until 1953. The building, which cost $100,000 to construct, consisted of three stories and housed 12 classrooms that could seat 450 students. When I hear about old buildings, or houses, or towns, or whatever, the first thing I do is imagine all of the people who lived or worked or played there. Everyday people, just like you and me, living and learning and loving one another. Struggling with math or groaning over names and dates in history. Harboring crushes and nurturing romances. Hating certain teachers and being amazingly inspired by others. How many passions that blossomed into careers began in that schoolhouse? How many kids learned to think a little differently or were exposed to some grand new idea in one of those classrooms? How many kids were given opportunities for education that their parents never had? How many first-generation college students started their educations in one of those rooms? Because that is what really gets to me, you know? I mean, history is about movements – big movements, big wars, big people, big things. But it’s also about the minutiae, and the normal everyday people just going about their normal everyday routines, doing normal everyday things. They aren’t just drops in the bucket. They are important too. We can’t forget them. We shouldn’t forget them.
Due to decades of neglect, the school is crumbling today. The mortar between the bricks has been compromised, and one wall has already collapsed. The roof is caving in, which has exposed the inside of the building to the weather and has thus accelerated the damage. The Goldfield Historical Society is trying to save the building. They have secured some funds through grants and private donations. Their most immediate goals are stabilizing the building and erecting a temporary roof in order to prevent more damage. Some of the funds they were awarded have fallen through due to the economy. The sad, sad truth is that historical preservation is almost always on the chopping block when belts are tightened. It sucks. It sucks balls. But that’s the way it is. You can learn more about the plans for the high school restoration on their website here, and if you scroll to the bottom, there is also a button where you can donate to the project. It’s tax exempt. It’s for a good cause. It might not be a project that represents a big movement. It might not make a whole lot of difference in the grand scheme of things. But some things are worth preserving.
While planning out this blog post, I thought long and hard about what big story I wanted to tell about Diane. And believe you me, there are some doozies. Some of them are heartwarming. Some of them are hilariously funny (especially the ones before she was sober). Some are deep and insightful and thought-provoking. But in the end, I think I’m going to go with this one…
A couple of months ago, I called Diane out of the blue because I just missed her so fucking hard. I missed her and I missed my dad, so I called and asked them to come see me. A couple weeks later, they did. We sat around the house and watched TV. We talked – a lot. We went to a history museum and a chocolate factory and down to Fremont Street to look at all the freaks (her kind of people). As always, the visit was too short and I was incredibly sad when they left.
It was the last time I saw her.
A couple weeks later, I got the call from my sister that it was cancer. A couple days after that, I talked to her on the phone. Things were looking up. A couple of days after that she was gone.
It was so fast.
The moral of the story, so to speak, is that she was always there when I needed her. Always. When I graduated college, she was there. When I had the baby and almost died, she was there. When I just missed her and needed to see her, she was there. Always. She was there. And it might not seem like a big story to you. I guess it doesn’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. But it was so big to me. If you could feel that love, you would know how big it is. It stands out, bright and beautiful, like cool shiny stuff. And it deserves to remembered. She deserves to be remembered.
What am I going to do now that she’s not here anymore?
That’s about all I can take, y’all. Back into the box it goes. Next up is “Diane and the Desert: Part 3 – Hawthorne and Ozymandias.”
If you have a story about Diane, I would love to hear it. Please share in the comments. Let’s remember together.